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Editor's Note: The following article was written by contributor Brandon Barton for his Facebook page, Last Man Projects. We've shared the post in its entirety with permission. It includes some valuable lessons on the realities of walking long-distance in an emergency scenario.
On Memorial Day I posted a brief teaser about my 26-mile road hike down Route 66 with my Direct Action Dragon Egg pack and Goal Zero Nomad 13 solar panel. As promised, I wanted to spend a little time giving you all my impressions of the gear, as well as (and maybe more importantly) my two cents on the overly romanticized idea of bugging out on foot or walking home after the SHtF.
First, I have to lay out a little backstory. I chose to do this hike at the spur of the moment. At about 09:00 I decided I didn't want to sit around the house all day, so I grabbed the loaded pack, filled the water bladder, threw in a few extra bottles, strapped the solar panel to the outside PALS webbing and took off.
I was already sort of worn down from an 8-mile hike Saturday and two heavy upper-body workouts plus a 3 mile run Sunday. I hadn't done a walk even close to this distance in about two years and didn't prep for it; no building up my endurance, no carb-loading, no rest beforehand. After all, no real emergency scenario is gonna give you time to prep your body for it. You either have the ability to do it live or not. It was as close to “oh shit I gotta go now” as you'd want. Sometimes it pays to be a little impulsive.
First off, the Goal Zero Nomad; I usually carry back up batteries that the panel feeds while I walk — this is the universally accepted and recommended way — but this time I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to directly charge my iPhone. Reason being, I know there are people out there that are trying to short-cut their preps. If you're one of these folks you're probably saying “but wait, I hooked up everything in my kitchen window and it showed my phone was charging!” Yep, and it does… sorta.
If you're doing anything more than setting it in the sun and leaving it for hours you’re going to have problems. If you're moving, which is the point of bugging out, I found it to be a pain in the ass and basically ineffective. The planets almost literally have to align right or the panel doesn't get enough CONSISTENT charge to keep the phone going. That’s the point of storing that inconsistent charge into a battery that will discharge at a consistent rate.
How do I know the Nomad's direct charge is picky and inconsistent? Well I'm glad you asked… because of that helpful and irritating tone the iPhone makes when you plug it in. It chimed off and on incessantly every time the sun went behind a cloud, I went under branches, or turned so my shadow even slightly blocked the panel. I tried a few different things, and it didn't really matter how I positioned the panel on the bag either. Point is that solar panels are very particular, so prep accordingly.
I was pretty impressed for the most part with how the Dragon Egg performed over the course of the ruck. My pack weighed in at about 33 pounds and it carried the weight well. I had really sore trapezius muscles from lots of back work the day before and a sunburn I earned on Saturday. Still, the straps were wide, very well padded, and it never felt like they were putting unreasonable pressure on my muscles. The back board was supportive and the thick padding was comfortably ventilated even in the 94-degree heat. The sternum strap was very important to keeping the shoulder straps snugged up and in the right place. I wish I could’ve gotten it tighter or there was a second strap lower on the shoulder straps, but it wasn't a huge deal.
I only had two real issues with the pack. The first is that the hip belt is basically worthless. It’s not padded and bears no weight, so I ended up not using it after about 4 miles. I know that on an intermediate to smaller pack that this isn't unusual, but I can't help but think the pack would've been even more comfortable had it had a padded hip belt. (That way I could've taken some weight off my sunburned shoulders every once in a while.)
The second issue — and I know this SEEMS minor — is that I wish the pack had thumb loops built into the shoulder straps. Have you ever hiked long enough to have your hands swell and fingers turn to sausages? I noticed it too, but thanks to my awesome nurse-girlfriend I now know that’s called dependent edema. Its caused by the blood pooling in your hands from carrying your arms low and swinging them as you walk for miles and miles. Its uncomfortable and robs you of some fine motor skills. The way to keep it from happening is carry your hands up every so often, which is kinda awkward unless you have something like thumb loops to hook onto while you walk. Sure, you can hook your thumbs other places, but it’s not as comfortable over that kinda distance, which brings me to my last point…
Walking 26 miles sucks. Look, I get it. There’s a lot of great prepper fiction out there built around the protagonist getting stuck out and making that long, dangerous, and action-packed walk home. Franklin Horton‘s “Borrowed World” and “Locker Nine” series are my absolute favorites and there are countless more, some better than others. At least I know Franklin — he's an avid hiker and knows what it takes out of you to put miles like that under your heels.
Unfortunately, many authors do not, and the vast majority of the prepper community doesn't either. Most folks will pack that bag… then OVER-pack it. It will either sit in the corner or closet, or at best get carried to a vehicle and back every day, but that’s about it. Those same “Hypothetical Preppers” will just assume that because the hero of their favorite book series did it, they can do it. I’ve heard it over and over first hand “Well, if the EMP hits I'll just grab my bag out of my truck and start home. I figure I can make 20 to 30 miles a day easy”. Sure you will man… sure you will.
Unless they engage in regular hiking, most people can't do a fraction of that if they are being honest with themselves. If they did get a jump on their trip and somehow managed to make 20 – 30 miles a day, I'm guessing they wouldn’t be going ANYWHERE for a few days after that while their body recovers. They never tend to mention that in most of the prepper fiction I've read. “Bill walked his ass off that first day, but because his muscles seized up overnight and his feet were totally shot, he laid around for the next three days trying to limber up and get feeling back in his blistered feet while his family fought off looters at home.”
My point is this, you have to be walking fit. Even if you’re gym fit, or work fit, you can't count on that to get you home. It doesn't matter that you can put up 300 on the bench if you can't walk to the bench to do it. It doesn’t matter if you work “on your feet all day” because that still doesn’t equate to humping a pack miles on end. And it doesn't matter if you used to be able to do it a few years ago — all that matters is if you can do it NOW.
No matter how good your shoes and socks are, your feet are going to get torn up. Since you don't walk around with a pack most of the time your muscles will ache and be sore from being used in ways they’re not used to. You'll have greater chances of mechanical injury, overheating, dehydration, and you’ll burn more calories than you'd probably planned on. I lost 4 pounds from that 26 mile walk. Regardless if it was water weight or fat burned, that’s still my body’s resources I lost… in ONE day.
The next day I was back in my gym and out running again, but I’m pretty fit and hike a lot of shorter distances. Still, it was really miserable and I’m pretty worn. Multiply that over several days to simulate a trip home and I can’t tell you how rough I’d be by the time I hobbled through my front door… or maybe if I’d have made it home at all. The constant fatigue could have caused me to make a stupid decision somewhere on the road and that would be it.
So get out there and hike with your packs. Feel what it’s like to walk with your favorite dystopian hero. Figure out where your preps are weak and fix the issues before you have to count on them. Prepping isn’t a hypothetical activity, it’s a full-contact sport.
For more prepper projects, survival tips, post-apocalyptic artwork, and more, be sure to follow Last Man Projects on Facebook. You can also check out Brandon's previous articles, Explaining the Prepper Philosophy and Survival Lessons from a Road Tramp.